Debunking “extraordinary claims”July 7, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
We haven’t heard from our friend cl in a while, but a post of his popped up in my Google Alerts this morning, and it turns out to be an interesting example of doublethink, so I thought we could take a couple moments to look at it.
I’ve got a very simple and straight-forward example of an instance where the claim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” can easily be shown false.
The problem with extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence is that believers have no extraordinary evidence to back up their extraordinary claims (otherwise why would they be so vexed by this requirement?). It’s not at all that skeptics are making any kind of unreasonable demand. All that this oft-repeated claim means is that if you’re going to say something is true, then we ought to be able to see things in the real world that are consistent with what you claim: if you claim extraordinary things are part of the real world, then we ought to be able to see extraordinary things, in the real world, that are consistent with those claims.
But that’s too much to ask of the credulous, so they’re anxious to rationalize away this perfectly reasonably requirement. Let’s see how cl tries to get out of this one.
Take the claim that some person climbed a tree, for instance. I doubt there is anybody out there who would deny this claim’s ordinariness, as people have been known to climb trees since antiquity. If I were to make the claim that some person climbed a tree, what sort of evidence would a reasonable individual require?I’m willing to bet your answer to that question would be comprised of one or more of the following:
1) some kind of hard evidence, e.g. an authentic photograph or video footage;
2) reliable testimony from a trusted source.
If your answer is comprised of one or more of the aforementioned, then I’m going to argue that it’s fair to call those examples of “ordinary evidence.”
Notice that he’s distinguishing between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” on the basis of commonality vs. rarity. Tree-climbing is “ordinary” because people have frequently been observed to climb trees, and it’s common knowledge that humans have a long history of doing so. Likewise, photographs of people climbing trees, and trusted sources who report seeing people climb trees, are proportionately common. Since this evidence occurs frequently, and not rarely, it is “ordinary” and not “extraordinary.”
He continues with this same standard in his “extraordinary” example—only not quite.
Next, take the claim that some person climbed one of the 88-story Petronas twin towers in Malasia. I doubt there is anybody out there who would deny this claim’s extra-ordinariness, as such feats are, well… simply not ordinary. If I were to make the claim that some person climbed one of the 88-story Petronas twin towers in Malasia, what sort of evidence would a reasonable individual require?
I’m willing to bet your answer to that question is going to be the same as your answer to the previous question: either some sort of hard evidence, reliable testimony from a trusted source, or both.
As such, I’m going to argue that the person who makes the argument, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” either misuses the term extraordinary, or attempts to increase the claimant’s burden of proof without justification.
Did you catch that? Climbing the Petronas towers is “extraordinary” because it doesn’t happen very often. How often do you see hard evidence, then, of someone climbing them? Equally rare. Reliable witnesses saying they saw someone climbing them? Equally rare. By cl’s usage of “extraordinary,” the evidence is just as “extraordinary” (i.e. “rarely encountered in real life”) as the claim. Yet he denies that the evidence is extraordinary because the type of evidence (e.g. photographic, or eyewitness testimony) is the same as for the “ordinary” case. In other words, he’s using a different definition of “extraordinary,” a definition based on type rather than on frequency of occurrence.
We can use that standard too, but if that’s the case, climbing a tree and climbing a building are both “ordinary” in that they’re both examples of humans climbing things. In other words, if we define “extraordinary” as meaning that the category itself must be rare, then neither example is extraordinary, since both fit in same the category of “people climbing.” What makes the Petronas climb extraordinary is the particular set of details in which it is different from other instances of people climbing things. But then, the same is true of the evidence: what makes it extraordinary are the particular details that make this particular photograph, or this particular eyewitness testimony, different from other photographs and testimonies.
Thus, it’s not the skeptic who is misusing the term “extraordinary,” it’s cl himself who equivocates on the meaning of the term, defining the claim as extraordinary based on the rarity of the details, and defining the evidence as ordinary based on the broad category of types of evidence. If you maintain a consistent standard of what “extraordinary” means, then the evidence can and must be just as extraordinary (or just as ordinary) as the claim it supports, just as cl’s example shows. This leaves cl with a double fail on his hands, because not only does his argument fail to prove his point, but we’re also left wondering just why he feels the need to try and make this argument in the first place. People who actually have reliable evidence don’t go around trying to downplay its importance.